Fleet managers can easily add to the list of painful but unavoidable facts of life that necessary evil known as insurance.

That's because right now insurance rates for many fleets are heading straight up, thanks to an unfortunate combination of factors influencing the market.

Over the past year, insurance premiums for some fleets have climbed anywhere from 15 to 100%. And fleets with dismal safety records may find it impossible to get insured at any price.

Why the steep climb now? There's a complex answer to that question. It's not as simple as a few too many fleets having a few too many accidents.

For example, according to the American Trucking Assns., five leading factors are influencing how insurance underwriters view the overall trucking market:

1. Claims costs that exceed premiums collected. Even as intense competition drove down the price of premiums in recent years, claims settlement costs rose thanks to accident risks heightened by the driver shortage and a rash of cargo thefts.

2. Traffic woes. Blame more trucks on the road to serve the booming economy and the nationwide uptick in speed limits for increasing accident risks.

3. Driver shortage. Simply put, putting inexperienced or unqualified drivers on the road increases risk of accidents.

4. Legal costs. Increased litigation and fatter lawsuit settlements are pushing up premiums. This also discourages investment in insurance companies, shrinking the capital pool.

5. Track record. As always, rate increases are dictated by the loss experience of a given customer. Once a number of insurers sustained heavy losses, more firms withdrew from insuring truck fleets or became more selective in accepting business.

FLEET OWNER safety columnist Jim York, risk engineering consultant for Zurich Insurance, offers his own take on why rates are climbing for truckers.

"Thanks to increased competition," says York, "rates had been artificially depressed over the past five years. Now, there's a correction under way due to several factors."

GO-GOERS GOING "For starters," he continues, "a number of big players that got into the trucking insurance market during the go-go years are now retreating. The commercial automotive liability field is again too volatile for them."

With fewer firms underwriting trucking policies, rates naturally rise. They also end up sticking. "Insurers still in the market can now raise premiums to levels that reflect their true cost of servicing these accounts," York explains.

Yet another reason he lists for the rate hikes is the greater scrutiny trucking's safety record is under. "Everyone's saying we (the trucking industry) have to raise the bar," York states. "So, insurance underwriters are turning more to risk engineers to benchmark fleet safety performance. And those not toeing the line have to pay the price. Put another way, insurers are now tracking alongside the government in requiring greater safety performance."

Lastly, York contends that premiums are being influenced by the simple fact insurers now know more about individual fleets than they ever did.

That's thanks in large part to the federal government making data from safety compliance reviews available over the Internet.

What's more, York points out, there's a trend among insurers staying in this field to bring industry experts on board to help them better understand trucking.

How to beat the high rates? York suggests a two-pronged strategy: financial and safety management. "The insurer will look into the fleet's ability to pay for coverage," he advises. "So, creditworthiness must be managed."

FOUR THAT COUNT As for the safety side, he says the way to wow insurers is to have systems in place to show what's being done about four key areas:

1. Driver selection, qualification and training. No surprises here. As York says, "You have got to separate the sheep from the goats."

2. Incident management. "In case of an accident," York says not facetiously, "don't just call the insurance company!" It's important to demonstrate the fleet knows how to protect itself at an accident scene - and that it can learn from accidents.

3. Fatigue management. There should be systems - beyond the logbook - at work to ensure drivers are still making the right safety decisions at the 9th or 10th hour. In other words, don't wait for hours-of-service reform to make your fleet operations safer.

4. Vehicle inspection, repair and maintenance. In short, follow the precepts of "Trucking 101." Know and practice the basics of good maintenance.

"Working on these areas," York advises, "will only lead to a better loss history, and that weighs heavily these days on how rates are set."

Jerry McCullough, national director of transportation sales for Liberty Mutual Insurance Group, concurs that insurance for transportation is getting more expensive.

"We have been in a soft market for a number of years," he says. "A lot of new players came in, which drove prices down. During that time, trucking companies enjoyed the benefits of both lower rates and lower deductibles. But at the same time, more trucks and more freight were on the road and losses did increase. Now, rates are firming up."

McCullough also offers a four-point prescription fleets can follow to positively influence the insurance rates they are being charged:

1. Driver selection. "It all starts with who you put behind the wheel," McCullough states. "It's worth it to put real effort into how drivers are selected."

2. Overall training and management of drivers. "Safe driving practices must be emphasized to the point that they become routine. The driver is the most important ingredient. He or she must be prepared to be the manager of that vehicle while it's on the road."

3. Review deductibles. "Increasing the deductible demonstrates a willingness to partner with the insurance provider by shouldering more of the risk. Depending on the size of the fleet, there may be a predictable level of claims cost, frequency and severity. A fleet could accept these as a cost of doing business."

4. Emphasizing vehicle maintenance is critical. "It can help to show shop records to the insurer. It is understood that a well-maintained vehicle is a safer vehicle."

McCullough says it is unfortunate not only that insurance rates had to rise but that it had to happen at the same time fleets are reeling from higher fuel costs and the need to boost driver wages. He points out that rate increases are "most dramatic" for those fleets that don't follow recognized safety practices.

But there is good news. "Trucking companies that are active in risk management and willing to assume more of that risk, as through higher deductibles, will see their premiums stabilize somewhat," says McCullough

"Certainly," he adds, "they will be better off than those fleets not making the same efforts."